Micro Units Fill a Huge Need
- Apr 30, 2020
Twenty years ago, the idea of a micro unit probably wouldn’t have gained much traction in the U.S., where renters seek as much space as possible—especially in big metros. But in today’s landscape, with a residential crisis that led to skyrocketing living costs and pressing demand for workforce housing closer to city centers, micro units have morphed into an attractive option for both renters and investors.
In 2012, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg held a design competition for a micro-unit building to be developed into a new housing model for what his administration called the city’s rising “small-household population.” A proposal by Brooklyn-based design firm nARCHITECTS, dubbed Carmel Place, won the bid. The project—the first of its kind in the city—would go on to rise in Manhattan’s Kips Bay neighborhood; it houses 55 apartments, 40 percent of which were designated as affordable and the rest as market rate.
“At first we were skeptical about the whole idea of people living in small units,” said Eric Bunge, principal & co-founder of nARCHITECTS. “Then we thought, they have to be very humane and it’s a huge challenge to make them livable.”
Bunge and his team thought about what key levers improve a sense of space and efficiency, and examined the challenges they faced with the project: How would they make the whole building, not just the unit, feel like home to a resident? How do amenities relate to the building? Are these amenities accessible?
Developers and architects approaching a micro-unit project for the first time often come in with predefined ideas. After all, the name itself tends to reduce the concept to a one-word description.
Bunge described a “sea change” that started happening in the conversation surrounding the idea after a New York Times article giving a first-person account of spending the night in a micro-unit building, made the rounds. The piece was accompanied by images of the author cleaning and entertaining guests.
“It was livable—it conveyed that,” Bunge said. “I was getting that sense every time I toured the building. People would come with certain preconceptions and then they’d start to vanish.”
The bigger the challenge and constraint, the more important the design became to Bunge and nARCHITECTS. “The same care may not have gone into a bigger unit,” he added.
Apartments at Carmel Place average about 300 square feet, with 9-foot ceilings and tall windows that open as terrace doors with Juliet balconies. The windows let in a lot of natural light, an important feature in any living space. The units include full kitchens and overhead storage space above the bathroom. Each resident has a designated storage bin in the basement and the option of additional storage, if needed.
“We have as much (storage) as you’d find in a three-bedroom apartment,” said Bunge.
One of the biggest revelations Bunge and his team had was how the initial mixed public reaction changed over time. Articles about health issues surrounding living in small spaces and misperceptions around how the units were managed clouded the reception of Carmel Place, but Bunge found that, in the end, the building proved to be a place where people wanted to live.
“They are really desirable, and people want to live alone and would rather pay a little more to do that. I think that for many people that was a big surprise,” he concluded.
For Riaz Taplin, micro units represent a larger conversation about small-format housing and a very specific demographic niche.
“The big macro shift is there’s this whole period of life where people are statistically single, from 22 to 32, and there’s no housing typology for that segment,” he said. His firm, Riaz Capital, has built three workforce-oriented micro-unit projects in California.
Having a construction and design background, Taplin focuses on making buildings simple. When he developed his second project, a 60-unit apartment community, he knew exactly what he did not want to do.
“That project focused on the idea of bucking two trends: megaprojects and over-amenitizations,” he said.
Maximizing space with storage solutions and built-ins are go-to features for Taplin’s properties. His firm chose to “deconstruct” a one-bedroom unit rather than shrink a studio.
Riaz Capital has raised roughly enough capital to build 2,000 housing units over the next three years, projects that will continue to target the workforce housing space.
“Over 10 years of learning, we learned and learned and learned,” he said. “We’re trying to scale it to make it meaningful to our community.”
Affordable housing option
“Micro unit” may be a buzzword, but the trend is still quite small in the U.S. There are relatively few completed projects that are 100 percent micro units. However, tangentially related concepts such as co-living are gaining popularity.
John Cetra is one-half of CetraRuddy, a New York City architecture firm co-founded alongside his wife, Nancy Ruddy. They haven’t worked on a micro-unit project yet, but Cetra finds the idea intriguing.
“I think that what micro-unit exploration uncovered is that apartments need to get smaller in order to make them more affordable or to get more people in one building,” said Cetra.
Over nearly three decades of designing residential properties, he has watched the square footage of units steadily shrink. However, he also noted that traditional developers are still reluctant to build micro-unit projects where interiors tend to be built-in.
Livability remains a challenge, Cetra mentioned. “We always think about how someone would live in an apartment no matter the size. We always have the conversation about ‘what if there’s a guest?’”
Ikea is not alone in manufacturing furniture meant to fit in smaller spaces—some of the biggest brands in home furnishings have specialty lines geared toward apartments with limited space. High-end lines including Pottery Barn, CB2 and West Elm offer small-space furniture and home goods, as do well-known retailers World Market and Target.
“For us, there’s an organic relationship between functioning internally and externally,” said Cetra, whose firm designs both exteriors and interiors for almost all their projects. “If someone would come to us for a micro-unit project, that’d be great, because we love to design to that level of detail in a room.”